Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from October 31 through November 3.
November 2, 1947 – The first flight of the Hughes H-4 Hercules. There’s no question that Howard Hughes was an eccentric man. Known for his reclusive behavior, he was also one of the wealthiest people of his generation. Through his varied interests and investments, Hughes managed to grow a $1 million inheritance into a billion dollar empire that encompassed interests in investing, film making, real estate and philanthropy. But to many, he is best known for his efforts in aviation, first with the formation of Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 and later with his purchase of a controlling investment in Trans World Airlines in 1939. In addition to his fascination with speed and air racing, Hughes developed a number of aircraft, but is best known for his greatest failure, the H-4 Hercules, known to most as the Spruce Goose. The Hercules was conceived early in WWII by shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and built by Hughes Aircraft in the hopes of providing the US with a transatlantic cargo plane that would be capable of carrying 150,000 pounds of cargo, 750 fully equipped troops, or two M4 Sherman tanks weighing 30 tons each. Hercules was an apt name for the plane, because it was a true behemoth—it was the largest flying boat ever built, and its wingspan of 320 feet 11 inches remains the longest in history. In an effort to save weight and conserve metal, the Hercules was constructed almost entirely of birch (not spruce), and it was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radial engines each producing 3,000 horsepower. The Hercules was constructed in Hughes’ Los Angeles factory, then a house moving company transported the disassembled aircraft to Long Beach, where it was reassembled for flight testing. With Hughes at the controls, the Hercules made two uneventful taxi runs, then, on the third, Hughes lifted the Spruce Goose off the surface of the water. The giant aircraft rose to about 70 feet, flew at 135 mph for about a mile, then settled back onto the water—and never flew again. It is impossible to know if the Spruce Goose would have met its design objectives. Its first flight came more than two years after VJ Day and the US government was no longer interested in such a huge propeller-powered cargo plane. The Spruce Goose was maintained in a climate-controlled hangar for thirty years, and eventually acquired by the Disney company and placed on display in 1980. It was later transferred to the Aero Club of Southern California and now resides at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. (FAA photo)
November 2, 1943 – The first flight of the Grumman F7F Tigercat. Grumman has a storied history of providing warplanes for the US Navy, but the aircraft that became the Tigercat actually started out as a project by Grumman to build a twin-engine interceptor for the US Army Air Corps, the XP-50, which itself was a development of the radical XF5F Skyrocket. But when the XP-50 prototype was lost in a crash, funding was shifted to a new design, the XP-65, and development of the Army interceptor, as well as a Navy version, designated XF7F-1, took place simultaneously. The main difference between the two versions was that the Army’s XP-65 was equipped with superchargers. But, as development continued, it became clear that the Army and Navy had very different requirements, and those needs could not be met by a single airplane (a situation that would plague the development of the General Dynamics F-111 twenty years later). So Grumman, based on their experience building fighters for the Navy, would focus entirely on the XF7F and the Army stopped pursuing the XP-65. The Navy envisioned their new aircraft not only as a fighter, but also as a ground attack aircraft, and the Tigercat had a serious bite: four 20mm cannons and four .50 caliber machine guns, as well as hardpoints on the wings and fuselage for bombs and torpedoes. And not only could the Tigercat hit hard, it was fast. With a top speed of 460 mph, it outpaced the Grumman F6F Hellcat by 80 mph, and was even a bit faster than the Vought F4U Corsair. However, the early models were not able to pass carrier qualifications and Tigercats were relegated to land bases and used as night fighters and for photo reconnaissance. By the third variant, the Tigercat was finally cleared for carrier operations, but by this late stage only 12 were produced. Too late for WWII, the Tigercat did see limited action in Korea as a night fighter, shooting down two Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, but this would be its only combat success. Most Tigercats were eventually sent into storage and later scrapped, though some were bought as surplus and used as firefighting water bombers. Of the 364 aircraft produced, seven remain airworthy, and two currently are being restored, one to airworthiness. Interestingly, Grumman had originally intended to call the F7F the Tomcat, but that name was considered too risqué for the era. The name Tomcat would famously appear later on the Grumman F-14. (NASA photo)
October 31, 2000 –The first resident crew of the International Space Station lifts off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The mission, named Expedition 1, had a three-man crew commanded by American Bill Shepherd and included Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei K. Krikalev, both of whom had long-duration space experience on board the Russian space station Mir. Expedition 1 lasted 136 days, during which time the crew activated systems on board the ISS and unpacked equipment for future missions. The ISS has been continuously inhabited ever since. (NASA photo)
November 1, 1997 – The introduction of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen. Designed to replace the Saab 35 Draken and 37 Viggen for the Swedish Air Force, the Gripen (Griffin) took its maiden flight on December 9, 1988 and has since been exported to five other nations. The single-seat, Mach 2 fighter was designed to operate from short fields and civilian roadways, and saw action is support of the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. About 250 Gripens have been built, and it remains in production. (Photo by Milan Nykodym via Wikimedia Commons)
November 2, 1992 – The first flight of the Airbus A330. One of a number of derivatives of Airbus’ original A300 wide-body, the A330 has a range of up to 8,300 miles and can carry as many as 335 passengers or 150,000 pounds of cargo, depending on the variant. To accommodate different customers, the A330 was the first Airbus airliner to offer a choice of three different engines. Still in production today, over 1,200 A330s have been built, and serve numerous civilian carriers, cargo companies, and the military. (Photo by Wo st 01 via Wikimedia Commons)
November 2, 1929 – The founding of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of woman pilots “that promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Founded at Curtiss Field in New York by ninety-nine of the then-117 licensed female pilots, the organization counts Amelia Earhart among its charter members, and includes such notables as Jackie Cochran, Patty Wagstaff, Jeana Yeager, Sheila Scott and Eileen Collins. (Photo via The Smithsonian)
November 3, 1952 – The first flight of the Saab 32 Lansen, a two-seat transonic fighter-bomber developed by Saab for the Swedish Air Force. Desgined originally as one of the first dedicated ground attack jets, Saab produced three principal variants: the A 32A for ground attack, the J 32B for aerial combat, and the S 32C for reconnaissance missions. Plagued by a rash of fatal crashes early in its operations, the Lansen was phased out beginning in 1971 in favor of the Saab 37 Viggen. 450 were produced between 1954-1960. (Photo by Bluescan sv.wiki via Wikimedia Commons)
November 3, 1944 – The first Japanese Fu-Go balloon bombs are launched against North America. The Fu-Go (“balloon bomb”) was a hydrogen balloon launched from Japan and intended to travel on the Pacific jet stream to North America. They were armed with either a small antipersonnel bomb or multiple incendiary devices, or both, and were intended to kill civilians or start forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. Over 9,000 were launched, but only one Fu-Go attack resulted in fatalities when a group of picnickers discovered one on the ground in Oregon. It detonated, killing a pregnant woman and five children. (US Navy image)
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